On June 17th, the Haverhill City Council violated the state’s open meeting law by secretly discussing, drafting, finalizing, signing, and circulating a letter declaring that racism is BAD – as if we are all so stupid that we really needed them to tell us that.
What this was really about, was the city council capitalizing on an unproven political allegation against mayoral candidate Scott Wood, to help Councilor Melinda Barrett in her campaign against Wood in the city’s mayoral race.
Nowhere in the city charter does it give the Haverhill City Council the authority to interfere with an election, or opine as a body on a campaign issue, nor does it allow them to inject the government body into political matters of the day.
What’s worse, is that the council allowed no public debate or input into the matter, there was no public posting that the letter was being constructed as official city business, and there was no transparency as to who had input and influence over the language in the letter that was designed to help the campaign of councilor Barrett.
That’s why the publisher of this newspaper filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s office alleging they violated the state’s open meeting law.
The state’s open meeting law clearly states that a majority of any public board is prohibited from discussing any official action in private. That means, for example: if five members of the council are at a fundraiser or a party, they are prohibited from even discussing issues that are, or may become, an official action of the board.
It also means a majority of the board cannot use emails, phone calls, or text messages to discuss city business outside of public view.
Clearly that is what happened here.
On August 25th, the city council admitted they had indeed violated the open meeting law, but only after the city attorney publicly stated that they were in violation.
That’s when councilors (except Joe Bevilacqua) took turns making excuses for their actions and even claimed that the public desperately needed to know that they “condemn racism.”
In fact, Councilor Melissa Lewandowski – an attorney no less – now admits to drafting the letter but claimed she had no clue there was an open meeting law prohibiting this kind of action.
The truth is, Lewandowski had already endorsed Councilor Melinda Barrett for mayor, as did the majority of the city council who illegally signed and circulated this letter against Wood.
This makes it perfectly clear that the council’s letter was not about some irrelevant declaration about racism being bad, but was really a conscious effort to use a public government body to interfere in an election by bolstering the campaign of one of their own, Councilor Melinda Barrett.
We find these blatant actions to be a gross abuse of their authority, public funds, resources, and time.
As such, we urge the Massachusetts Attorney General to fine each councilor $1,000 as permitted by law.
We also urge District Attorney Paul Tucker to investigate the council for misuse of public funds, and using a public body to coordinate with a political campaign and engage in “election interference” to bolster the Barrett campaign with their attacks on Scott Wood.
We only hope the voters are all paying attention! ◊